Following on from the squat article, this article will aim to help you improve that sticky deadlift. As with the squat, the deadlift is arguably the king of exercises. I personally believe the deadlift is a truer show of strength. Equipment, unlike the squat and bench press, plays such a marginal role in this movement that it really does just come down to pure strength. Look at the average total of an equipped federation in powerlifting. 9 times out of 10 the squat will be the biggest lift, with the deadlift quite often several hundred pounds less. I believe that like the squat, a deadlift improvement will be an overall improvement. Indirectly working the bench press muscles by simply being under intense contraction throughout the lift and those muscles feel the benefits of the huge response your muscles cry out for in the way of your body releasing more growth hormone and becoming highly anabolic. Few powerlifters directly train biceps, yet they often have large arms – not just triceps.
The biggest key to a big deadlift is technique. Find your technique. Are you conventional or sumo? Alternate or overhand grip? Use these as a starting block and start tweaking the textbook stance and position until it is YOUR stance and position. As a sumo deadlifter, the focus will be leg and hip strength. A much shorter range of motion than your conventional alternates, but a much harder starting position. You’ll rarely see a bombed deadlift once a sumo lifter gets the bar moving off the ground. Vice versa, you won’t see many conventional lifters struggle off the ground – they’ll normally fail knee height up. This is because the sumo lifters essentially use next to no back. Simply held in a strong isometric contraction, the back is just there for your arms to be connected into something on the shoulders. In comparison, once the bar starts approaching conventional lockout, the legs are really starting to come out of play and it relies heavily on the back muscles to a) keep the bar close to the body (lats and traps pulling it in and up the thigh) and b) to actually extend the body fully and straighten up (posterior chain – hamstrings, glutes, spinal erectors).
As a conventional lifter myself, I will pour my experience and advice from their stand point. Sumo deadlifting is heavily dependent on leg strength, so technique and bigger squats should keep you sumo guys and girls moving. Remember, good technique will be the best thing for you – study technique, read the mechanics of your chosen style and watch videos of people doing it.
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Failing off the floor – Weak hamstrings
At the starting position, your pelvis is anteriorly tilted. The hamstrings are at a good mechanical advantage here, but you won’t be able to use your best mechanical advantage if they’re too weak. To address weak hamstrings, leave the curls for the posers. You’re interested in moving some heavy iron. Movement specific exercises. Hip extension movements like good mornings, glute bridges, pull-throughs and reverse hypers. Your lower back is being taxed in all these movements, so be careful. Listen to your body again and ease off if it is taking a pounding. Rotate the movements around and find what you are comfortable with. Maybe start with some heavy pull throughs or glute bridges (barbell on the hips, start with shoulders on the floor in sit up position) – you’ll most likely want the squat bar padding for this. Load up the weight and do 5 sets of 3-4 reps. Follow this with a lighter exercise to preserve your small lower back muscles. Heavy movements followed by assistance exercises like stiff leg deadlifts. Much lighter weight but 3 sets of 8-10 reps. Create a deficit (stand on a plate/ planks of wood) so you have to reach further. This will increase the range of motion and also increase the stretch you’ll place on the muscles. Do these in place of deadlifts for 6 weeks and return to them. Hamstring and glute strength should be up. Set up time Being in the start position correctly is tiring. You’ll be supporting all your weight whilst preparing your mind to lift big. You’ll lose any stretch reflex you were hoping to aid your numbers and you’ll be fatigued by the time lockout comes around. Get your set up down. Fire yourself up before the bar touches your hands if you need, so you can be in and out of the hole quickly. Ensure you don’t rush this – good technique will not only mean good lifting but will allow you to lift heavy safely.
Failing at lockout/above the knee – Upper back weakness
You’ll need some strong traps and lats to lift big. The scapula will retract hard to help straighten you up to lock the bar out. The traps will be pulling upwards to help lift the bar towards the ceiling, but don’t expect them to be shrugging the weight up. They’ll be contracting so don’t worry about them – just lift and they’ll work with you. Make sure you develop them so they can actually assist! Heavy shrugs in sets of 5 reps will fix that. Once a month I like to incorporate heavy power shrugs. A great way to really overload the trap muscles, you strap the bar in an overhand position. At lockout where you would normally begin to strictly shrug the bar, you bend the knees slightly ( 3-4”) and fire up to lockout as you shrug. The momentum will carry the bar through to lockout and the extra 70kg+ your traps are having put through them will really get them responding. Lots of horizontal rows as well, like cable face pulls and seated rows too to work the entire upper back.
Dropping the head will cause some serious injury when you’re lifting towards 1RM weights! Pick a spot above your line of sight as you’re lifting. Keep a neutral position not allowing the chin to lift up or drop down as this will be an unnatural position. Imagine holding a card with your chin against your chest. The card is just long enough that when you hold it in place, you’re neck and head is in a neutral position. Now imagine deadlifting keeping that piece of card in position. Reverse band deadlifts
My absolute favourite way of developing serious lockout strength. You can do rack pulls from pins, but unless you get into your starting position from the floor, you’ll be hard pushed to replicate exact deadlift technique from that specific part of the range of motion. Reverse bands work by lifting the bar from the floor but as the band slackens towards lockout, the band stops assisting so much and starts causing more work for the lifter. Energy isn’t used up just to get the bar to the part of the movement you need to develop, so you can push that part hard and correctly for your particular style of lifting. Attach the bands to the top of a power rack, slide the bar through the bands and start adding weight. Take your 1 rep max weight as a starting point and aim for 3 sets of 5. Once you hit this, return to normal deadlifts and enjoy the new poundage you’re lifting!
A combination of this work has allowed me to deadlift over 700lbs raw at 235lbs in the juniors. Get lifting and believe me when I say these will put plates on that bar!